By Erik de Ridder
Freedom Day is a useful focal point to consider efforts at making freedom a lived reality for all. Moreover, it is an opportunity to reflect on the need for a different type of engagement in South Africa.
On the part of those who enjoy different freedoms, Freedom Day is an opportunity to focus on the costs and responsibilities of that freedom. On the part of those who live in conditions of minimal freedom, Freedom Day is less of a celebration than the big fanfare at the Union Buildings will make it out to be. The ANC government has done well to create an enabling environment since 1994, but the project is far from complete and many necessary reforms remain yet-to-be-attempted.
Countries that celebrate diversity and are most suited to people living in harmony, able to avoid the pitfalls of oppression and arbitrary justice, have religious, economic and cultural freedom, as well as tolerance and respect at their core, but also institutional strength as their foundation. Independent institutions are the broad architecture that support the Constitution (the “core”), but also enable broader economic development, by creating the conditions for the freedom of the citizen.
In the absence of broader economic development, all other rights are threatened and compromised. Material depravity is powerlessness, even in the face of political freedom.
In order for political and social freedom to become truly meaningful, a naturalisation of rights must occur through economic development. Economic freedom implies broader ownership of the risks and responsibilities associated with rights. The ownership of risks and responsibilities, politically, socially and economically, is ultimately what we mean by “citizenship”.
As a result of inequality, South Africa will continue to have a population of “citizens” and “others”, a situation that is both unacceptable and unsustainable. Jacob Zuma is correct in blaming separate development policies for the fact that when you enter any South African city, you observe two different countries living side-by-side. But, he is not correct in forgetting to acknowledge responsibility for failures at reform and shared responsibility in post-1994 development.
A different type of engagement means reviewing how best our efforts at national development can unite the disparate lived-realities of ordinary South Africans, and restore agency, so that everyone has equal opportunity to experience a larger freedom.
No efforts can be wasted at restoring the balance between citizen and government responsibility. As citizens, coordinated and determined action, that deepens the South African constitutional project, is a responsibility. Such action is a necessity — to achieve minimum norms and standards in our schools, to achieve electoral reform that enhances accountability, to prevent economic barriers to the use of public spaces and roads etc — even if the government of the day is determined to halt civil progress in its tracks, such action must continue.
The abolishment of slavery was helped along by civil action and civil disobedience. The end of apartheid was brought about by coordinated civil action and civil disobedience. Governments do not make societal progress on behalf of populations; people through their political, creative and productive efforts, in partnership with governments, make progress. If a government deviates from the path to shared prosperity, then citizens must react accordingly. Governments are also not particularly good at creating and maintaining independent institutions; citizens must play their part.
Freedom is not yet a lived reality for all. To extend the franchise of freedom, to create a culture of citizenship, there is a need for a different kind of engagement in SA. Communities must take ownership and right South Africa’s challenges differently; the responsibility is not with government it has to be in partnership with government or, if necessary, in conflict with government. In the absence of partnership and genuine shared responsibility, there will be abuses of power and corruption, in both the public and private domains.
This Freedom Day, stoking the fires of activism, entrepreneurship and public service, working to ignite a culture of shared responsibility, seems a most appropriate activity 19 years along the road towards a lived constitutionalism and a broader prosperity.
Erik de Ridder is managing director and founding member of InkuluFreeHeid.